Many people often confuse Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) because they both have to do with the digestive system, but they are in fact both very different diseases. In this blog post, I want to separate the two and explain the main differences. Keep in mind there is no cure for either of these diseases, but there are ways to manage symptoms. Nonetheless, both diseases are not fun and have a significant impact on life activities.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects at least 10 to 15 percent of adult Americans according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. It is pretty common and you wouldn’t even know it! IBS is a cluster of intestinal symptoms that usually occur together, but could also be sporadic. The symptoms of IBS include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating and gas, constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms can resolve themselves, but some people may experience continuous symptoms. The process of diagnosing IBS is very similar to the process of diagnosing IBD in that cutting out certain foods, stool samples, and blood tests can help make the determination.
The exact causes of both IBS and IBD are currently unknown. Possible causes of IBS include an overly active colon or immune system. Even a previous bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract can cause symptoms of IBS. Although we do not know the exact cause, there are a few triggers of IBS to be aware of. These triggers include stress, anxiety, and certain foods. If you are able to stay away from or minimize these triggers, you could experience some symptom relief.
To treat IBS, diet is everything! Typically, lifestyle changes and home remedies are suggested first for symptom relief before introducing any medications. Home remedies include regular exercise, cutting back on caffeinated beverages, eating smaller meals, eliminating stress, taking probiotics and avoiding spicy or deep-fried foods. Finding the right diet for you is a process of elimination and requires a lot of time and patience. Not all patients with IBS have the same diet, so it really is dependent on you and what your body can tolerate.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) – which I have – is a group of intestinal disorders that cause prolonged inflammation of the digestive tract that affects around 1.6 million Americans, most of whom are under the age of 35 (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, IBD Factbook). There are two types of IBD – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC). Crohn’s disease can cause inflammation anywhere in the digestive tract, from mouth to anus. UC causes inflammation only in the large intestine. Symptoms of IBD include diarrhea, bleeding ulcers, stomach pain, cramping and bloating, weight loss, and anemia due to loss of blood. IBD can also be associated with other disorders outside of the digestive tract like eye inflammation, skin disorders and arthritis.
Similar to IBS, there is no exact cause of IBD. We do know that genetics (my uncle also has UC), a weakened immune system, age and environmental factors play a large role in the diagnosis of IBD. The hereditary aspect of IBD is something that obviously cannot be prevented, but you may be able to prevent flare-ups by exercising regularly and eating nutrient-rich foods. In contrast to IBS, IBD puts you at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer and can be life-threatening. Luckily, there are many medications on the market to treat IBD.
Some examples of medications currently available to treat IBD are corticosteroids (budesonide, prednisone), 5-ASA drugs (mesalamine, Pentasa), immunomodulators (methotrexate) and biologics (Humira, Stelara, Entyvio). I have had experience taking three of these four categories of medications and have found the most success with biologics and 5-ASA drugs combined. Combination therapy is very common in IBD, as one medication usually does not resolve all symptoms. Every person reacts differently to each biologic and it is important to find the best fit for you based on the severity of your disease. Corticosteroids are not meant to be taken long-term due to negative side effects and only tend to provide temporary relief.
If the disease is severe, surgery can be a possibility to remove some or all of the colon, resulting in a J-pouch. A routine colonoscopy is recommended for patients with IBD since they are at a higher risk of developing colon cancer. I personally have to get a colonoscopy every two years, even though I am symptom free. I would rather be safe knowing what is going on in my colon than taking the chance and not getting the colonoscopy.
To find out more about the differences between IBS and IBD, visit the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation website. They have tons of great information, especially for those who are newly diagnosed and want to find resources. I hope this blog post was helpful for those of you who had questions about IBS or IBD in general. It is really important to make the distinction between the two because even though they have similar life effects, the diseases affect our bodies differently and have different risk factors associated with them.
Have more questions? Let me know in the comments below!